Trust in a human-equine relationship is just as crucial for the horse as it is for the human. We should never trust our equine friends 100 percent. Sometimes they forget that we are considerably smaller than they are. However, we can use trust and respect to develop a strong, loving bond that will last a lifetime. How do you build that trust and respect, and how do you know your horse trusts you?
Here are some ways to know your horse trusts you.
In our article on 15 Important Ground Rules for Safety, we talk about how “you and your horse need to be a team, but you need to be the team leader.” We earn trust with good leadership. Weak leadership will result in a lack of trust and a weak relationship with your horse. One of the ways to know your horse trusts you is good leadership.
How to Communicate this Leadership
Start by spending time with your horse. Begin with groundwork. Don’t rush to start riding. By consistently working with your horse from the ground, you will build respect and trust while establishing you are higher in the herd hierarchy.
Next, provide for the needs of your horse. Sit and talk to them while they eat, and spend time grooming them. Horses are herd animals. Even though it may take some time for them to respond, they will appreciate the attention. Horse herds eat together and groom each other. However, letting your horse groom you can get painful and is not recommended.
Finally, and most importantly, keep your horse safe! Putting your horse in a situation where they get hurt can severely damage trust. The leaders of the herd are responsible for not leading the herd into dangerous situations. As the leader of your herd, your horses are trusting you to keep them safe.
Signs Your Horse Trusts You
Horses are masters at reading body language. You, as a horse owner, need to learn to read equine body language. A trusting horse will have a more relaxed facial expression. The obvious place to start is the ears. If the horse’s ears are perked up, and not pinned back, we know they are not angry about something. Pinned ears are a warning sign that requires attention.
Are the Eyes Relaxed?
When a horse’s eyes are relaxed, they tend to be more open and have a softer look. If a horse is agitated or angry, they tense the muscles around their eyes. The results are smaller eyes that seem to be glaring and hard.
The mouth adds to the facial expression. In a relaxed horse, the lips are not tight. Sometimes they are so comfortable that the lower lip is drooping. On the flip side, if they have their mouth open and their teeth are showing, watch out to not get bitten.
When doing groundwork, the first sign of trust to look for is licking of the lips. Once your horse starts licking his lips, it is a sign of wanting to trust you and giving submission to you as the leader.
Picking Up His Feet
Horses are prey animals that respond with fight or flight. They use their powerful legs to fight off predators or run away from scary situations. When we ask them to pick up a foot and hold their leg up in the air, we are essentially taking away their ability to run away. A horse that picks up all four feet and allows us to take care of their needs is another sign of trust.
Touching His Ears
A horse’s ears are very sensitive to touch. Being able to hear from long distances is a survival tool as well. If a horse’s ears are rubbed from a young age, they may look forward to their ears being rubbed. Unfortunately, some people will twist a horse’s ears as a way to control them. This can make touching the ears and putting on tack a problem. It will take time and patience to get a horse that is “touchy about his ears” to trust you enough to touch their ears.
Doctoring When They Are Hurt
If you own horses for very long, there will be a time you will need to doctor one of them. A trusting horse will be easier to doctor and may look to you for comfort. A horse that does not trust completely will be hard, if not dangerous, to doctor. This is another excellent reason to work on a strong bond built off trust and respect.
A Mare’s New Foal
You have waited eleven months for your horse to have that baby. As the day draws close, so does the excitement. But so do the questions. What if she has trouble delivering? What is there is something wrong with the baby? Will she let me help her or get near the baby?
The instinct of a mare is to be protective of her offspring, especially when the foal is newborn. A horse that trusts you and respects you will go against this natural instinct. On a side note: as much as you may want to help with delivery, it is best not to interfere. If you think she is having trouble, call your vet!
Willing to Go Against Their Instincts to Do Something You Ask
We tend to ask horses to do things that are against their natural instincts. Loading in a trailer, for instance. From a horse’s point of view, loading into a trailer is asking them to confine themselves to a small area, where flight is not an option if things go wrong. They need to have a lot of trust to willingly jump up into that “prison.”
Another example is asking a horse to walk across tarps. Don’t get me wrong; this is a useful training tool to help desensitize a horse. To the horse, the tarp looks like a hole in the ground. When first learning to cross tarps, a horse will often paw at the tarp. He is trying to determine that you haven’t lost your mind by asking him to walk into the hole. Once he trusts you are of sound mind, he will happily walk across the tarp.
Trust and respect are necessary to build a strong relationship with our equine friends. We accomplish this with leadership. Furthermore, there are several ways to know your horse trusts you. Horse owners need to be able to read their horse’s body language. We also need to recognize situations where our horses are showing they trust us to be leaders and know we will keep them safe.
About the Author
Wendy Sumner grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming. She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association. At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine. She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons. We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer.